Grape Brandy warmed up for Dubai World Cup day with victory in the February Stakes on Sunday, Japanese racing’s first Grade One title of the 2013 season.
Third choice Grape Brandy took the tape in the 1,600-meter race at Tokyo Racecourse in 1 minute, 35.1 seconds for the first G1 win of his 16-start career.
The 5-year-old son of Manhattan Cafe, ridden by last year’s leading jockey Suguru Hamanaka, who won the February Stakes for his first time, held off the race’s former champion and ninth favorite Espoir City by three-quarters of a length.
Wonder Acute, third in the February Stakes last year, was third again a further neck behind.
Grape Brandy is listed for the Godolphin Mile at the March 30 meet in the United Arab Emirates featuring the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race.
“I got a huge monkey off my back; it’s my first G1 win in a long time,” said Hamanaka, who picked up his second career G1 victory and first since the 2009 Kikka-sho.
“There were massive expectations for this horse so I’m glad I didn’t disappoint. He’s become a much better racehorse since the last time I rode him.”
All eyes had been on Curren Black Hill, the 2012 NHK Mile Cup champion who emerged as the betting favorite in his dirt debut. The 4-year-old colt, however, was given a rude initiation to the new surface, finishing 15th in the full field of 16.
The second pick, 4-year-old Ijigen, didn’t fare much better, ending up 12th under Irishman Francis Berry.
Grape Brandy had missed a chunk of his career with a broken leg, unable to race from July 2011 until May last year.
Trainer Takayuki Yasuda said it was not until this year that his horse finally resembled the form of old that made him one of the top dirt prospects in the country.
Grape Brandy was coming off a three-length win in the Jan. 20 Tokai Stakes and picked up right where he left off on Sunday. After a fast start, he traveled along the inside and after the bunched-up pack hit the straight, Hamanaka brought his partner to the outside before Grape Brandy took off for the finish.
“It’s the greatest feeling,” Yasuda said. “He was sidelined for a while but when he came back to us, he came back to us a very mature horse. He arrived at Tokyo Racecourse in great condition.
“We weren’t sure about the distance because there are a lot of specialists at the mile. But he got off to a really good start and took position more toward the front than I expected.
“When the jockey brought him wide with a furlong to go, I thought we had the race in the bag.”